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Darla Moore School of Business

Moore School marketing professor’s research finds quasi-elitist social network within consumer review communities

Nov. 1, 2017

When you think of online communities, what comes to mind?

Maybe social media — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat — or online gaming communities — Steam, Discord, Twitch — or maybe even popular review sites — Yelp, Amazon, Goodreads — where you can share your opinions on various products and comment on the opinions of others.

Research by Professor Ramkumar Janakiraman of the University of South Carolina Darla Moore School of Business has revealed an internet community among people who rate hotels. His study on consumer hotel reviews in the Yelp community was published recently in the International Journal of Hospitality Management, the leading journal in the hospitality industry. This research was done in tandem with Hengyun Li and Fang Meng from USC’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Tourism Management and Ziqiong Zhang from the School of Management at the Harbin Institute of Technology in Harbin, China.

The study began with the question “How useful are Yelp reviews?” If you’re like most people looking for product information, you look at more than just the content of a review when determining how trustworthy it is. Looking at all the hotel reviews for the Las Vegas market for a little more than a year, Janakiraman found that many users focus more on the person writing the review than the review itself.

“If you have a strong network, your review matters more,” he said.

Yelp classifies its reviews as “funny,” “useful” or “cool.” Janakiraman was able to construct a social network of Yelp users, and, by using this network, he found that positive reviews are correlated with being perceived as “cool.” What this means is that a reviewer’s network has significant power in how their reviews are perceived.

“While studying the review by itself is important, we’re also trying to find out who you are,” Janakiraman said. “If you’re a person who has a huge network, then your voice counts more in terms of influencing reviews.”

This is one of the first studies — if not the first study — to document the power of this type of network. Janakiraman also found that the number of “elite” friends that someone has in their network matters too, “elite” being a reviewer who contributes a lot.

“If I’m an elite reviewer, my voice matters more,” he said.

The power of a reviewer’s network and their elite status can help them overcome a user’s negativity bias — the bias a user naturally has to give greater consideration to negative reviews over positive ones. This is why companies tend to respond to negative reviews in order to bolster their credibility.

What this research means for hospitality companies is that they should target elite reviewers when deciding who to respond to, and they should especially pay attention to negative reviews from elites in order to maximize the positive image they can gain from a limited time spent responding online.

By Madeleine Vath

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